While the pandemic rages on, Haley Bennett is living in a fairy tale. The star of three of this year’s most talked-about movies is currently on location in Noto, Sicily, filming her romantic and creative partner Joe Wright’s upcoming MGM-backed musical “Cyrano.” Based on Erica Schmidt’s stage production, the material marks a homecoming for Bennett, who played Roxanne in a 2018 version of the musical for a small theater company opposite Peter Dinklage. He’s also reprising his role as Cyrano de Bergerac amid a tight-knight cast quarantining in Italy.
“We’re in this bubble, and outside of this bubble is chaos, and a very bleak reality. But inside of this bubble is the most magical world I’ve ever been immersed in. And so it feels really strange to look at the news and and see what’s going on outside,” said Bennett, six hours ahead of New York time, in a phone interview with IndieWire. Still, shooting “Cyrano” isn’t without the grind of the pandemic-era protocol that’s defining all film and TV productions now, in Hollywood or elsewhere.
“We have to take permits to walk the streets to go to work, and it’s a crazy new normal, but we’ve managed to make the film. We are in our sixth week, and every day feels like a little miracle,” she said at the time. They now have just another week to wrap the film. “No one’s gotten COVID,” she said. “We believe in masks. We believe in testing. We believe in science. And here we are, getting to make a film.”
Even in the lead-up to “Cyrano,” Bennett, 32, has already enjoyed one of her biggest years yet as a performer, deepening her portfolio as the top-billed star and executive producer of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ body horror “Swallow,” and as a supporting actor in two Netflix dramas set in Appalachia, Antonio Campos’ grisly gothic “The Devil All the Time” and Ron Howard’s blue-collar drama “Hillbilly Elegy.”
The rundown, middle-American landscapes of the latter films were recognizable to Bennett, who was raised in rural Ohio, where she had an unstable and itinerant childhood moving from place to place. In “Hillbilly,” she plays Lindsay, daughter of Amy Adams’ Bev, an unreliable drug addict who mostly leaves her kids to raise themselves while in pursuit of the next high, or man to fill the void.
“I had to conjure up some painful memories from my past and being a child brought up in lesser circumstances with a father who also struggled with addiction in rural Ohio,” Bennett said, “and who also was a victim of this kind of generational abuse and deep turmoil. It’s not easily sugar-coated.”
Despite accusations from critics that the source material, a memoir from Appalachian-turned-venture-capitalist J.D. Vance, exploits the community it depicts, Bennett said, “We all had the best intentions making the film, and really want people to relate to these characters.”
While films like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “The Devil All the Time” are big-canvas ensemble stories in which Bennett is one piece of a much grander picture, in the case of “Swallow,” she’s the leading lady in a performance that’s garnered critics’ kudos all year (including on IndieWire’s 2020 Best Actress list). In the film, Bennett puts a feminist twist on the Hitchcock blonde as Hunter, a spaced-out upstate New York housewife who develops pica disorder — an obsession with consuming everyday objects — as a mechanism of control over a life that isn’t hers.
Bennett plays Hunter like a broken doll glued back together, and caught in a Stepford-like trance of doing dishes and ironing clothes. “It’s a timeless story in terms of women’s control over their bodies and being put on trial in conservative states,” Bennett said, adding that the film interrogates the notion of “trapping women into vulnerable and abusive situations at home.”
Hunter is almost like a stereotypical ’50s housewife flung into the present, nursing private, self-destructive desires while otherwise keeping house for her cartoonishly handsome husband Ritchie (Austin Stowell). But Hunter’s often harrowing journey is all in service of freeing herself from a patriarchal world, and from a distinctly female trauma that turns the back half of the movie upside down.
“In this world that Hunter existed in, and in this world that we still exist in, obviously we have come an incredibly long way, but it’s extremely relevant,” Bennett said, adding that, “I don’t know why people look at the ’50s as more of a box than 2020. I still think we’re in a box.”
Bennett said that “Swallow” is about looking “beyond what it means to be the perfect host or the perfect wife.” And the film, sadly, fits snugly into the universe of 2020 and at the end of President Trump’s reign, when women often wound up in the crosshairs of political discourse.
“It’s so important for women to use their voice and take control of their bodies and their futures,” Bennett said. “It’s sad [the world of ‘Swallow’] is not that antiquated. This is a mirror of life in the past, [but] we are still facing these oppressive situations. It’s really quite unbelievable that women’s rights are being threatened at every angle.”
Hunter’s ritualized behavior leads her in some squirm-inducing directions, consuming things like tacks, batteries, marbles, and dirt, but Bennett said that making audiences uncomfortable is exactly the point. “It’s difficult to watch a woman descend into madness,” she said. “When I see a film, I want to be pushed to my limits.”
Though far removed from the horrors of “Swallow,” “Cyrano” is also pushing her limits due to the fact that she’s working so closely with her partner Wright. It’s an “incredibly intimate experience,” she said. “And intimacy is sometimes absolutely terrifying, because as human beings, we want to be impressive to our partners. It feels like working without skin in a lot of ways … like I’m walking around skinless.”
That disarming experience working on the set of “Cyrano” with Wright is perhaps not unlike her “Swallow” character Hunter’s day-to-day, a constant navigation of insecurity and self-doubt.
“I feel vulnerable in maybe not being lovable, or being judged, or maybe, ‘Oh, now he can see my flaws.’ Am I still lovable? Am I still worthy?'” she said. “But on the other side of it is being known. No one knows me better than Joe, and no one knows him better than me. So it doesn’t feel foreign. It feels like an extension of our love.”
“Swallow” is currently available to stream on VOD. “Hillbilly Elegy” and “The Devil All the Time” are now streaming on Netflix.